“Zero Dark Thirty,” Kathryn Bigelow’s follow-up to the Oscar-winning “The Hurt Locker,” is screening for the first time to a packed theater in L.A. Its star, Jessica Chastain, is waiting to take the stage for a discussion of the film, in which she plays Maya, the CIA agent who spent the better part of a decade leading the hunt for Osama bin Laden. And Chastain, who is playing to sold-out Broadway houses in “The Heiress,” is anxious. She is shaking like a leaf, and her teeth are chattering. Bigelow asks her if she’s cold. “No,” Chastain says. “I’m nervous!”
Minutes later, Chastain takes the stage to a raucous response and a lengthy standing ovation. Before the day is up, reviews will praise her performance, with Awards Daily’s Sasha Stone calling it “far and away the best performance of the year by any actress.” A few days later, back in New York and on her way to a performance of “The Heiress,” Chastain laughs about that screening. “Kathryn said to me, ‘I’ve never seen you nervous before!’ ” Chastain recalls. “I looked at her and said, ‘That’s because I was Maya. Maya doesn’t get nervous. But this is Jessica, and I’m about to freak out!’ ”
By her own description, Chastain is “a softie” and far more emotional than the determined Maya would ever allow herself to be in public. The actor says she had to fight back tears when the audience responded so powerfully. “I was afraid I would cry,” she says. “And I kept telling myself, ‘You can’t talk about this amazing, strong woman in this film and burst into tears!’ ”
Some of those tears might have been from relief. Chastain calls Maya, who is based on a real individual still in the CIA, the toughest role she’s ever played. This was largely due to the intense material, which was kept under secrecy since filming began in February 2012. One day, the newly minted superstar was at the Academy Awards as a nominee for her turn in “The Help”; the next, she was on a plane to Chandigarh, India, to start what would be a grueling four-month shoot. Chastain, who says she’s horrible at keeping secrets, found herself increasingly isolated. “I couldn’t tell people who I was playing. My agents hadn’t even read the script. I couldn’t explain the significance of what I was doing,” she says. “I was in a part of the world that didn’t treat me with a lot of respect. I felt really invisible. I felt really lonely and separate, but what I always try to do is use any emotion for my benefit. So if I felt lonely or it was hard, I would think, Well, what do you think Maya was going through?”
Perhaps the most frustrating part was reading erroneous reports about the project. “There were a few places that reported I was playing Joel Edgerton’s wife,” Chastain says. “And it made me so angry. Here’s this amazing historical moment, and everyone assumes the woman in the movie is on the sidelines. They can’t imagine a woman would be in that position of power.” At the same time, she says with a laugh, she herself was surprised to discover how important a role “Maya” had played. “I mean, I followed the news and I’d never heard of this woman,” she says. “I was completely blown away to learn about her.” Even now, Chastain can’t say much about the woman she plays, as her primary concern is keeping her identity secret. But one thing is for certain: Chastain’s performance honors and celebrates Maya, whoever she is.